Epic undertaking

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 12, 2008

Role after smaller role was admirably and eloquently filled. Tenor Eric Cutler (the Nemorino in Boston Lyric Opera’s recent L’elisir d’amore) deserved the huge hand he got for Iopas’s ravishing pastoral aria, and Canadian-American tenor Philippe Castagner, the sailor Hylas, sang his homesick lullaby exquisitely. Boston baritone David Kravitz and bass-baritone James Courtney were delightful as sailors having too good a time in Carthage to leave. So was Met mezzo Kate Lindsey (impressive in John Harbison’s new Fifth Symphony) as Ascanius, Aeneas’s young son. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn resonantly grounded the bottom of the scale. And so on down the line.

But it was Levine and the orchestra who held me in thrall. The playing, from William R. Hudgins’s quiet clarinet solo depicting the widowed Andromache to the chilling bass tremolos, was never less than astonishing, conveying layer upon layer of meaning and emotion — and scenery. Levine, swirling in his new revolving chair, waved his arms as if he were more magician than musician. In Les Troyens he was both.

One has to be grateful to Opera Boston for putting on Verdi’s Ernani — his fifth opera and his first from which (as Richard Dyer’s witty and informative program note pointed out) an aria took on an independent, international life: the soprano’s celebrated “Ernani, involami” (“Ernani, fly away with me”). The plot, based on Victor Hugo’s landmark Romantic melodrama Hernani, is almost impossible to follow without knowing the complex backstory. What’s clear is that three powerful Spanish noblemen (tenor, baritone, and bass) are all in love with a soprano (Elvira) and that the one she loves back, Ernani (the tenor), is — because Romantic heroes live by an absolute code of honor — bound to kill himself on his wedding day. Verdi’s music has unstoppable vigor and arching lyricism, and in a handful of arias and plot-forwarding ensembles — among them the final trio for Elvira, the evil bass Don Ruy Gómez de Silva, and the dying, Heaven-bound Ernani — it rises to heights of sublime inspiration.

Opera Boston surely chose Ernani because it had an Elvira — Barbara Quintiliani, who had already sung Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with the company. She’s a real Verdi soprano, with a voice of gleaming platinum, sizable yet flexible. Opening night, she sang her famous opening aria with earnestness, finesse, and impressive coloratura, but too carefully for so impassioned a piece (and with some dicy intonation). She soon lost her inhibitions, however, and she stood out in the large ensembles. Her soaring legato was unique in this cast, her acting sincere but amateurish.

Ernani was Eduardo Villa, Marcello Giordani’s cover in the recent Metropolitan Opera Ernani, replacing the indisposed star even as he too suffered from a bad cold. The Internet exploded with stories of his getting boos. Villa seemed to have recovered from his cold, but though he sang with gusto, his appeal was limited by his broad acting and brutalist vocal technique. He included the moving aria Verdi added at Rossini’s request, one Pavarotti reinstated, but it requires a refinement he doesn’t have. Baritone Jason Stearns (Don Carlo, the king), whose acting skills and ringing high notes impressed me when he sang Tonio in Chorus pro Musica’s Pagliacci last season, here fell short in some smeary quiet singing and where the role calls less for characterization than for emotional nuance. Bass Young-Bok Kim, dignified but gravel-toned, failed to project in either voice or demeanor any of Silva’s essential menace.

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